Bipartisan Bill to Maintain and Protect Federal Lands Passed Through the Senate


Image from Flickr

Maxwell Bernstein | June 19, 2020

The Great American Outdoors Act passed through the Senate with a bipartisan 73-25 vote on Wednesday where it is now heading to the House. 

This bill would double the current spending on The Land and Water Conservation Fund to $900 million a year along with another $1.9 Billion per year on improvements and maintenance of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and rangelands, according to the Associated Press.  The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a federal program that protects public lands and waters, resulting in the protection of 2.37 million acres of land, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior

The Great American Outdoors Act is expected to create over 100 thousand jobs which will go toward restoring national parks and repairing forest systems and trails. Supporters of the bill are calling it, “The most significant conservation legislation enacted in nearly half a century,” according to the Associated Press.   

Supreme Court Allows Construction of a Pipeline that May Cross Underneath the Appalachian Trail


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Nicole Welle | June 18, 2020

The Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of a pipeline company by saying that a new natural gas pipeline could cross underneath the Appalachian trail on federal land.

The 600-mile pipeline is being developed by Duke Energy and Dominion energy and would run from West Virginia to population centers in Virginia and North Carolina. The 7-2 Supreme Court ruling overturned part of a lower court decision that blocked construction of the pipeline, and the case revolved around the question of which federal agency, if any, had the authority to grant the permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, according to an Iowa Public Radio article.

The U.S. Forest Service initially granted the permit in 2018 since they administer George Washington National Forest where the pipeline would cross the trail. However, a number of environmental groups raised concerns over the agency’s authority to do so. They believe that because the Appalachian trail is part of the National Park System, rules that govern National Park lands should apply instead.

There are also a number of environmental concerns associated with the construction of the pipeline. However, the Supreme Court noted that the pipeline would run hundreds of feet underground and entry and exit points are nowhere near the trail when making their decision. The winning argument centered on the interpretation of certain words in various federal laws and succeeded in disentangling the trail from the land beneath it. This will allow construction of the pipeline to proceed under the permit granted by the Forest Service.

Iowa Experts Discuss How Current Global Crises Intersect With Climate Change


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Nicole Welle | June 17, 2020

On yesterday’s episode of Iowa Public Radio’s River to River, experts in environmental health and sustainability discussed the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic, police brutality and the ongoing issue of climate change.

Eric Tate, associate professor of geographical and sustainability science at the University of Iowa, spoke on how health and climate crises can highlight disparities already impacting the country’s most vulnerable populations. Peter Thorne, another professor at UI and head of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, compared COVID-19 to climate change by speaking on how early action can cave lives and minimize harm. Finally, Ulrike Passe, associate professor of architecture and director of the Iowa State University Center for Building Energy Research, spoke on the importance of considering both climate and social factors when designing and constructing buildings.

Click here to listen to this episode of River to River.

EPA releases FY 2019 Superfund Annual Accomplishments Report


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Thomas Robinson | June 16th, 2020

The EPA has released their annual accomplishment report for fiscal year 2019 and Iowa has two sites mentioned in the report. 

The Superfund Annual Accomplishment Report summarizes the work the EPA has done to clean up contaminated sites on the National Priorities List (NPL).  The report also details the efforts being taken to improve the Superfund program based on recommendations made by the Superfund Task Force.  In FY 2019, the EPA fully deleted 12 sites and partially deleted 15 sites across the country.  There were 6 less deleted sites and 11 more partially deleted sites in 2019 over 2018.

Iowa saw two Superfund sites deleted from the NPL in 2019, one completely deleted, and the other only partially deleted.  The Electro Coating Inc. site in Cedar Rapids was deleted, making it the first Superfund site in Iowa to be closed since 2005, while the Shaw Avenue Dump site in Charles City was partially closed.  A partial closure means that some portions of the site still require clean up, while other portions are no longer a hazard to human health.

Superfund is the informal name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) passed in 1980.  CERCLA allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites across the country and to engage those responsible for the contamination.  Since CERCLA was passed, 424 sites have been removed from the list out of 1335 sites total.   

DNR Sets Stricter Water Quality Thresholds for Iowa Beaches


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Nicole Welle | June 15, 2020

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) decided to follow stricter standards this summer for the amount of toxins found in the water at public beaches.

Microcystin is a toxin produced by cyanobacteria in algae blooms in Iowa’s lakes. It poses health threats to humans and animals that swim at beaches with high levels of the toxin and can cause abdominal pain, blistering, pneumonia and vomiting if ingested. Dogs have also died from being exposed to it, according to an Iowa Environmental Council news release.

In 2006, Iowa DNR began using a threshold of 20 micrograms per liter to issue beach advisories. However, they decided to lower it to 8 micrograms per litre this year after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended it.

The DNR currently monitors only a small percentage of Iowa’s recreational beaches, but they were able to issue a number of advisories and temporarily close beaches on Lake Macbride, Spirit Lake and Lake Rathbun last year when microcystin levels exceeded the threshold. The number of advisories issued this year is likely to be much higher than past years under the new guidelines.

Fusion Energy Steps Closer to Reality


Image by ITER

Maxwell Bernstein | June 12, 2020

On Tuesday, May 26, the largest piece of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor’s (ITER) tokamak was installed on-site in southern France, making fusion energy seem more like a reality according to ITER Newsline

The ITER project is an experimental fusion energy project that hopes to produce 500 MW of fusion power, advancing our goal of creating carbon-free energy that operates under the same principles as stars, according to ITER’s about page

Fusion energy comes from the combination of hydrogen nuclei which fuse at extremely high temperatures to create helium as it’s only byproduct. By 2025, ITER will start its first plasma, making it the world’s largest operational tokamak. 

A tokamak is an experimental donut-shaped container that contains extremely hot plasmas; a state of matter where electrons are disassociated from their nuclei according to Britannica

ITER is a collaboration of 35 countries and has been in the works since 1980. The project has a price point of about $23.7 billion to construct it’s 10 million parts, according to WIRED. This the most ambitious energy project today and is crucial in advancing fusion science according to ITER. 

To combat climate change, an alternate energy source that produces zero cabon emissions is needed, which fusion energy can fulfill.

Statement on Racism in America by CGRER Co-directors Jerry Schnoor and Greg Carmichael


Jerry Schnoor and Greg Carmichael | June 10, 2020

As a research center dedicated to scientific inquiry, we realize academic pursuits are only possible in a system that respects all people and exemplifies social justice. In wake of the tragic killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many others, we cannot continue business as usual. We stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, against police brutality, and with all the victims of systemic racism and violence. We realize there is much work to be done right here within our center and institution to end past silence and to become a part of the solution. Every person of color must have the social, economic, and political power to thrive. Today we pledge to be a part of that dialogue and the change which must inevitably occur.

On Wednesday, global academic and stem communities shut down across the world in solidarity with all people working to eradicate anti-Black racism. Here is a link to that effort.   https://www.shutdownstem.com/ 

Remnants of Tropical Storm Cristobal Reach Iowa in a Rare Occurrence


Source: NASA earth observatory

Nicole Welle | June 10, 2020

Parts of Eastern Iowa saw heavy rainfall and flash flood warnings yesterday as what was left of Tropical Storm Cristobal moved into the Midwest.

Tropical storms over the Gulf of Mexico usually break up before they reach Iowa, but this one remained a post-tropical depression in an extremely rare phenomenon, according to Meteorologist Brooke Hagenhoff at the National Weather Service. This system brought an abrupt end to the hot, humid weather that eastern Iowans had been experiencing as it was followed by a cold front that brought cooler, dryer conditions, according to an Iowa News Now article.

The post-tropical depression caused heavy rainfall in the state, and flash flooding occurred near waterways and in low areas. Along with posing threats to human safety, flash floods can also raise environmental concerns. Floods have the ability to pick up hazardous chemicals and materials and transport them into waterways. This can threaten the safety of drinking water as well as the plant and animal life that rely on Iowa’s waterways.

Perchlorate Contamination Is More Dangerous Than Previously Thought


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Thomas Robinson | June 9th, 2020

In a new study, researchers have suggested that perchlorate, a chemical commonly found in fireworks, is more dangerous to human health than was previously thought.

Perchlorate is a highly mobile chemical that can be found in many contaminated sites across the country.  In their study, the researchers discovered that perchlorate poses a greater threat to human health than previously thought because it can reduce the amount of iodide that accumulates in thyroid cells.  Low iodide concentrations can interfere with hormone production which can negatively influence human metabolism and development.

Perchlorate has both synthetic and natural routes into the environment, but a common source for the chemical is from fireworks displays.  A different study demonstrated that after fireworks displays, perchlorate levels in adjacent bodies of water spiked up to 1028 times above the mean baseline concentration.

Iowa has experienced perchlorate contamination in Hills, IA, where the chemical has been detected in the communities well water since 2001.  Thankfully, perchlorate levels have decreased after the installation of expensive reverse osmosis water units.  Unfortunately, considering the risk perchlorate likely poses to human health, the EPA has yet to decide on a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for perchlorate in drinking water.

Trump Signs an Executive Order Waiving Environmental Reviews for Key Construction Projects


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Nicole Welle | June 8, 2020

The current economic “emergency” caused by COVID-19 gave President Trump the ability to sign an order on Thursday that allows federal agencies to waive environmental reviews for the approval of major construction projects.

The president used a section of federal law that allows “action with significant environmental impact” without observing the usual requirements set by laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environment Policy Act. These laws normally require agencies to analyze how decisions on construction projects could negatively impact the environment, according to a Washington Post article.

The executive order will speed up approval for the construction of highways, pipelines, mines and other federal projects. In the order, the president stated that the normal regulatory processes required by law would keep Americans out of work and hinder economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this decision could lead to increased negative environmental impacts and harm plant and animal life in construction areas.

Many conservation groups are concerned that this could also lead to further dismantling of environmental laws in the future. However, while some companies could benefit from these changes in the near future, they also may be reluctant to rely on the order out of fear of legal backlash from environmental and public interest groups. Some companies may also hesitate to use the order to push projects forward since they would likely need to show proof that they were operating in an emergency.